While Ami Canaan Mann’s “Texas Killing Fields” is her first, she no doubt picked up some tips from her director dad, Michael Mann, who’s made more than his fair share in “Heat,” “Thief” and “Manhunter.”
That much, I’d expect. What I didn’t expect was that the daughter’s film would be better than her revered father’s last four. (Yes, I liked it even more than “Collateral,” sacrilege though that may seem.) That “Texas Killing Fields” failed to get a theatrical release on more than 10 screens boggles my mind. It’s absorbing, solid material.
Loosely based on a string of murders along Interstate 45 within the Lone Star State, the shot-in-Louisiana film partners New York native Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “The Resident”) with Texas-born Mike Souder (Sam Worthington, “The Debt”) as the two detectives investigate the mysterious murders of young women along the stretch of road. Brian may be a fish out of water in such barren, broken country, but he’s more emotionally invested in seeing justice secured; Mike, being all too knowledgeable about the inherent dangers of the area, is more realistic. As he says early in the picture, “Sometimes you get, sometimes you get got.”
Well, “Texas Killing Fields” got me, right from the start. Police procedurals tend to fascinate, even more so when a sense of place becomes an indispensable element of the storytelling. Here, the omnipresent rumble of thunder and the grit that hangs in the air are practically supporting players, with the latter helping to paint the cloud of misery under which so many of the characters inescapably live.
Most notable among them is “Hugo”’s Chloë Grace Moretz, who plays a delinquent teen forced to fend for herself, thanks to her whoring, drug-addicted mother (Sheryl Lee, last seen on the screen in the even more dour “Winter’s Bone”). While Mike warns not to get involved, Brian looks out for the girl as a surrogate father figure should, and not just because there’s a serial killer on the loose.
The British Worthington doesn’t exactly nail the Texas accent convincingly, but does so enough that it didn’t distract or detract. Although the “Avatar” star earns top building, the true lead role belongs to Morgan, for whom the audience is asked to root as the movie’s moral compass. His equal in that department — and in performance, despite much less screen time — is the amazing Jessica Chastain as a fellow detective and Mike’s ex-wife, capping an already storybook-perfect 2011 that saw her gracing the likes of “The Debt,” “The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter” and “The Help.”
Donald Ferrarone’s script, his first, flails only at the very first, when we’re not sure what we’re seeing, and at the tail end, as it dips its toe in the schmaltz. Other reviewers have lobbed accusations of incomprehensibility at Ferrarone, whereas I welcomed seeing Brian and Mike juggle several story lines worth of suspects, some of which turn out to have no connection to the ultimate culprit. That’s how law enforcement works.
It’s perhaps both a compliment and an insult to say that the younger Mann has crafted a film in the elder man’s style, but it’s true. This is the kind of material he’s often drawn to (he serves as a producer), but she excels at it, too, and deserves more opportunities at bat. She has the breakout hit in her. It should’ve been this. —Rod Lott